No one in Spain had ever impugned Lieutenant Marshall’s coolness under fire, though more than one had called it foolhardiness. This was different. It looked very much as if someone had deliberately set out to put a bullet through his head, and it was all too possible that if he had not dismounted in that abrupt and inelegant fashion the second try would have succeeded.
Cold with foreboding, he went to catch Rusty, who was grazing placidly nearby. As far as he knew, no one hated him enough to put a period to his existence. That left only one motive for murder. And the only man who would profit by his demise was Sir Gregory Markham.
Often as he had inveighed against his cousin, accused him of coveting lands and title, he had never dreamed that the big man would see him as a removable obstacle. Even now he found it hard to believe. He remembered a time, he must have been eight or nine, when he had worshipped Cousin Gregory, had thought the sixteen-year-old schoolboy a buck of the first cut. In his heart he recognised that the dislike in which he had since held him had been a reaction against that excessive admiration. He had hoped that meeting him man to man, on a new footing of equality, he would be able to make him a friend.
Instead, he had been caught in an irresponsible prank, forced into a defensive position. He had quarrelled bitterly with Sir Gregory, had said, as Linnet guessed, unforgivable things. But murder?
There was no one else.
Gerald was incredulous. They talked of nothing else all evening, and though he could think of no other possible suspects, he still did not believe Dominic’s theory.
“It was a farmer after some bird of prey,” he insisted, “or a poacher looking for a rabbit for his pot.”
“It was a rifle.” His friend was adamant. “Just look at these holes. That was a bullet, not shot.”
For the umpteenth time they studied the hat.
The evidence was produced again in the morning, when Miss Sutton, Miss Brand, and Lady Elizabeth arrived. Lord Dominic was displaying it before the vicar could warn him not to alarm the ladies. Beth refused even to consider the possibility that Sir Gregory was responsible. She retired to a corner of the drawing room with Gerald, and if they spoke of the incident it was only to each other.
Angel, on the other hand, had had a minor tiff with the baronet the previous day and was no longer in charity with him.
“It is monstrous exciting!” she exclaimed. “Only do be careful, Dom. Suppose he tried again to kill you? I never guessed he was half so wicked!”
“‘Why, he’s a devil, a devil, a very fiend,’” quoted Catherine ironically.
“Do you think so?” asked Angel. “I quite thought you liked him, for you never agreed when I said he was odiously starchy.”
“Lord Dominic, surely you cannot believe your cousin would descend to such a level of depravity!”
“I wish I could deny it, but try as I might, I can think of no one else who has any motive. While I live he can expect only a few farms and a comparatively small amount of money, for the rest is entailed and cannot be left away from me, though I get nothing from it at present. If I were dead, he’d inherit the title and the entire estate. It is enough to tempt any man.’’
“Not Sir Gregory, not to murder! He is an honourable gentleman.” But he had taken advantage of her, kissed her against her will. Fighting doubt, Catherine went to discuss with Mr Leigh the parish business her father had been persuaded to concoct.
“Tell me exactly how it happened,” coaxed Angel. “You were riding through the fields?”
“Yes. There was a call for Gerald and as he was away I went in his stead, though I’ve no notion what I hoped to accomplish. I never completed the errand, but I suppose it cannot have been excessively urgent or they would have sent again. The half-wit must have exaggerated.”
“I should not be at all surprised. It would make him feel important, I expect.”
“I daresay. He came with me to lead the way, for I am not absolutely certain of the Upthwaite farms. We were passing a spinney, elms and a lot of undergrowth, when I heard a shot. I thought nothing of it—poachers, perhaps, but it is not my land. Rusty was startled into rearing, and poor Herbert took to his heels in a panic and will not go near the place again, I’ll wager.”
“And then you realised he was shooting at you?”
“Oh, no. Then I descended from the horse in the most ludicrous manner, which I will not describe, and on the way down a second shot rang out. When I picked up my hat from the mud I discovered the bullet holes, and I could hear someone galloping off. Doubtless when I fell he thought he had finished me off.”
“But why would Sir Gregory have been over here?”
“I was not far from the boundaries of Grisedale. If he was inspecting the estate he might have ridden on, on the off chance. Did he know that Gerald was not at home yesterday?”
“Yes,” said Angel slowly. “Beth told him when we were talking about Helvellyn. So he knew you were alone, and it was not likely you would stay indoors all day. He was at the Hall in the morning, but in the afternoon he went out, for several hours. I was with Beth most of the day.”
“If only I had some proof!”
“You did not even see him? Just heard the horse? Then I suppose there is nothing we can do about it.”
“Is he intending to climb Helvellyn with you?”
“Yes. I’ll make sure he does not leave us halfway and go back to murder you, if I have to cling to him like a leech. But Dom, promise me you will not go riding alone in the hills?”
“I promise, Linnet. Meet me tomorrow by the lake?”
Angel was thoughtful on the way home, and that afternoon she cornered an apprehensive Catherine.
“It has stopped raining,” she announced. “John Applejohn says it will certainly be sunny tomorrow.”
“Yes, I really think it might. Shall we plan on climbing tomorrow? We had better send notes to the Hall and to Upthwaite.”
“Will you write them? Listen, Catherine. Lord Dominic will not be able to come all the way and I don’t want Sir Gregory to go back and kill him. So you must keep him occupied.”
“I thought there was something brewing. Must I?”
“Yes, for I shall have to make sure Lord Welch does not bother Beth and Mr Leigh, and I shall be too busy to keep an eye on him too.”
“But Angel, do you really think it necessary? After all, if he absented himself from our party and then Lord Dominic were found dead, suspicion must inevitably fall on him.”
“If Dom was dead it would be too late, and I daresay he would make it look like an accident so we could not prove anything. I could not bear it if anything happened to Dom.”
“I was afraid that that was the way of it.”
“Have you any reason to suppose that he thinks of you seriously?’’
“N-no. He does like me.”
“It is difficult not to, Angel dear.”
“Sir Gregory does not. Which just goes to show. Well, even if I never see Dom again after I go home, we cannot let him be murdered in cold blood. Will you help, Catherine, please?”
“Very well,” said Catherine resignedly. “I will not let the wicked baronet out of my sight.”
Sir Gregory took on the unenviable task of persuading Mrs Daventry to allow Beth to climb Helvellyn, a proposal she described as “shockingly unladylike.” Since she went on to stigmatise Angel as an “an encroaching, underbred hussy” and complained that her charge was never seen without her, the baronet decided she was jealous.
A spot of shameless flattery brought her round in the end, and he thought he had forestalled the possibility of her complaining to Lord Grisedale. That accomplished, Sir Gregory remained as short a time in the lady’s company as was consonant with the barest minimum of civility. He went to announce his success to Beth.
He found her conferring with Cook on the proper ingredients of a picnic for seven hungry climbers and a guide. She was pleased but not surprised, having every faith in his ability to get his way in any situation.
Abel, the groom, had volunteered to be their guide.
‘‘I were up t’mounting wi’ t’sheep every summer when I were a lad,” he had announced on hearing of the project. “Know it loike t’back o’ my hand. ‘Sides, ye’ll not want summun as might tell tales on Master Dom.”
The three from the Hall arrived at the Barrows End vicarage at an unconscionably early hour. Shivering in the chill of the misty morning, Catherine and Angel joined them, and they took the track over Dowen Crag.
Angel was far from certain how she should behave towards Sir Gregory, convinced as she was of his perfidious attack on Lord Dominic. To ignore him or accuse him were equally out of the question. Fortunately he was not in a talkative mood, having resumed the air of cynical boredom which he had for the most part abandoned in their company. She hoped his conscience was pricking him.
Catherine was also unsure how to go on. Though nearly convinced the shooting had been an accident, she had her own reasons for constraint. Since the night he had kissed her she had only seen the baronet twice, in company, and had scarce exchanged a word with him.
Having promised Angel to “keep him occupied,” she made an effort to converse as they set out. Her openings sank without trace in his abstracted silence, and she was greatly relieved when the narrowness of the path forced them to ride single file.
Her next concern was how Dom would treat his cousin. Their quarrel would account for a certain coolness between them, and she hoped he was not anxious for a confrontation. If only Mr Leigh had represented to him the impropriety of an open accusation based on mere guesswork! She was pleased with Angel’s restraint; perhaps his lordship would be equally amenable to reason.
She need not have worried. When they arrived at Upthwaite Park, Dominic was already there and managed to include all five, even Abel, in his careless greeting. As he immediately monopolised Angel, the fact that he never directly addressed Sir Gregory went unnoticed. Osa, bestowing lavish salutations on each and every person, made up for her master’s neglect.
Angel had decided to begin as she meant to go on, that is to devote herself to distracting Lord Welch so that he would not plague Beth and Gerald. However, her good intentions went for naught. Lord Dominic claimed her attention, and she could not bring herself to abandon their delightful intimacy for the dubious joys of a meaningless flirtation. Besides, the viscount was being positively genial, even towards his rival. He had provided a substantial breakfast and seemed to revel in his role as host.
When they had all eaten their fill, Lord Welch was much inclined to give them a tour of the splendours of his house and gardens, with which only Dominic was familiar.
“Lady Elizabeth has not been here since we were children,” he pointed out. “There are many improvements I should wish to show her, and all of you, of course. I do not pretend to equal the luxury of Grisedale Hall, but I can claim a degree of elegance and comfort to be found in few homes in this neighbourhood.”
Mr Leigh nobly ignored this scarcely veiled taunt, and left to the others the task of persuading his lordship to postpone the inspection till another day. This done, Abel was called from the kitchens and they set off once more.
As soon as they left the shelter of Upthwaite’s valley, they found themselves on steep, rugged moorland. Abel, in the lead, was closely followed by Lord Welch, who kept up a running dispute as to the correct path. It was a one-sided dispute, as Abel uttered not a word and at every point where trail and opinion diverged took his own way with unswerving determination.
Whenever there was room to spread out, the party divided itself instinctively into pairs. The viscount continued his unheeded argument with their guide. Behind them rode Lord Dominic and Angel, both of whom appeared to be deriving immense amusement from some private joke. Then came Beth and Gerald, their horses so close it was amazing they did not trip over each other’s heels. Bringing up the rear were Catherine and Sir Gregory.
“I do not wish you to think that I am not grateful for the loan, sir,” said Catherine, “but you must admit that this nag is excessively sluggish. I do not believe I shall reach the summit until after dark!”
“He considers our present course fit only for a mountain goat, Miss Sutton. I have never seen such a disgruntled expression on a horse’s face. Fortunately you will be able to abandon him shortly and carry yourself the rest of the way.”
“Fortunate indeed! I must hope I shall not reveal myself to be equally sluggish.”
The track narrowed again, rising steeply between gorse and heather. They were forced to ride single file until they emerged on a gently sloping pasture dotted with sheep. Abel awaited them by a rough stone shepherd’s hut. With him was the old man who had been in church their first day in Barrows End.
The shepherd was delighted to have company, and his black and tan dogs were persuaded to reach an accommodation with Osa. She and Lord Dominic would have to stay here, as the way grew too steep for horses. The others left their mounts in the drystone-walled sheep pens behind the hut.
At the top of the next slope Angel, hot and panting in spite of a refreshing breeze, looked back to see Dom and Osa gazing wistfully after them. She waved, half minded to go back to them. Then Lord Welch said something to her and the moment was lost. She went on, though conscious that the day had lost some of its brightness.
The path was interrupted here and there by rocky steps. The group began to straggle, Catherine and Sir Gregory once more in last place. They had no breath to spare for talking now.
As Sir Gregory helped her over a particularly awkward rock, Catherine realised with misgiving that she had all too easily returned to the informality she had sworn to abjure. If he had not yet addressed her as Kate, that was doubtless because he had been unable to call up an apposite quotation. Useless to attempt now to return to strict etiquette, but she must make an effort to catch up with the others. Trying to ignore the amusement in his eyes, she hurried on until she was so out of breath she simply had to sit down on a convenient boulder to recover.